How Charles Spurgeon Pastored Fellow Suffering Christians

Article
03.08.2018

If trials can be beneficial for all believers, they’re invaluable for gospel ministers. When pastors preach from a broken heart, they can often relate far better to the despairing and thus offer a deeper consolation.[1] When a pastor patiently endures difficulty and affliction, and keeps rejoicing in God, it powerfully commends the gospel as glad tidings of great joy.[2] The pastor—or, indeed, any Christian who ministers to another—can prove the comfort that’s to be found in God in such times. God therefore often leads his under-shepherds through trials “not so much for their own benefit as for the sake of those to whom they may afterwards minister.”[3]

LEARNING SORROW FROM THE MAN OF SORROWS

Charles Spurgeon knew that pastoring is normally slow work. Troubled people “cannot be dismissed with just a word of hope and a dose of medicine, but require a long time in which to tell their griefs and to receive their comfort.”[4] After all,

Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart
is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,
and like vinegar on soda. (Prov. 25:20)

That being the case, pastors need to develop the compassion of the Man of Sorrows, and that normally requires suffering. Certainly that was how it was for Spurgeon himself. He experienced depression much of his life: “I have learnt from it to be very tender with all fellow-sufferers.”[5] It is a difficult thing for a man who has had a life of ease and comfort

to sympathize with another whose path has been exceedingly rough; even though that successful man should try to sympathize, he does it very awkwardly. . . . “Stuff and nonsense!” says a strong man to some poor suffering one; “you are too nervous; try and exert yourself.” That is often one of the most cruel things that can be said to the sufferer. But if the man has been through a similar experience, he uses another tone of voice altogether.[6]

Christian ministers should therefore expect a special degree of suffering to be given to them as a way of forming them for Christlike, compassionate ministry. Christ himself was made like his weak and tempted brothers in order that he might help those who are tempted (Heb. 2:16–18), and in the same manner, it is weak and suffering people that God has chosen to minister to the weak and suffering. Angels or supermen simply couldn’t sympathize with human groans; their very strength would only mock our weakness and thus mock the gospel.[7] Spurgeon therefore tended to put his trust more in those ministers who exhibited joy and peace in God while having been dragged through particular suffering.[8] Indeed, he said,

if you have never had such an experience, my dear brother, you will not be worth a pin as a preacher. You cannot help others who are depressed unless you have been down in the depths yourself. You cannot lift others out of despondency and depression, unless you yourself have sometimes need to be lifted out of such experiences. You must be compassed with this infirmity, too, at times, in order to have compassion on those in a similar case.[9]

FINDING COMFORT IN CHRIST

When ministering to the downcast, pastors commonly point people to the resurrection and the victory of Christ—toward the thought of death defeated, tears wiped away, and exchanging the helmets and swords of struggle for the palm branches and crowns of victory. However, when pastoring the suffering and depressed, Spurgeon seemed most often to have focused people on Christ crucified as the Man of Sorrows.

For, he said, the afflicted “do not so much look for comfort to Christ as he will come a second time in splendour of state, as to Christ as he came the first time, a weary man and full of woes.”[10] Where Jesus in his heavenly glory might seem too exalted for the emotionally battered to approach, Jesus in his pain-racked humility can be just the balm they need.

Spurgeon found for himself that in seasons of great pain, the “sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice.”[11] Again and again, Spurgeon returned to the theme of Christ’s compassion for his suffering people. In an 1890 sermon titled “The Tenderness of Jesus,” for example, he spoke, while feeling his own weakness, about Christ as the High Priest who feels for us in our infirmities:

This morning, being myself more than usually compassed with infirmities, I desire to speak, as a weak and suffering preacher, of that High Priest who is full of compassion: and my longing is that any who are low in spirit, faint, despondent, and even out of the way, may take heart to approach the Lord Jesus. . . .

. . . Jesus is touched, not with a feeling of your strength, but of your infirmity. Down here, poor, feeble nothings affect the heart of their great High Priest on high, who is crowned with glory and honour. As the mother feels with the weakness of her babe, so does Jesus feel with the poorest, saddest, and weakest of his chosen.[12]

In suffering, then, it’s not only that we get to draw nearer to Christ, becoming more like him and leaning more fully on him. In such times, Christ draws near to us and walks with his people in the furnace. And not only to walk with us, but to bear us through. Spurgeon reflects:

In the old Pilgrim’s Progress I used to read in my grandfather’s house, I remember the picture of Hopeful in the river holding Christian up; and the engraver has done it very well. Hopeful has his arm round Christian, and lifts up his hands, and says, “Fear not, brother, I feel the bottom.” That is just what Jesus does in our trials; he puts his arm round us, points up, and says, “Fear not! the water may be deep, but the bottom is good.”[13]

Christ’s nearness with us in such times will instill a sweetness into the bitterness of suffering. Indeed, that’s his ultimate purpose even in the darkness: to share more of that joy that  one day we will have beyond any and all contamination.

* * * * * *

Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ by Michael Reeves, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900), 63.

[2] “Joy, a Duty,” in C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63

vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917), 41:136.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900), 18:217.

[4] Ibid., 38:51

[5] Ibid., 48:525.

[6] Ibid., 54:375.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, vol. 1, A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1875), 1:168.

[8] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, vol. 2, Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1889), 2:81-82.

[9] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900), 38:180.

[10] Ibid., 19:121-22.

[11] Ibid., 19:124-25. Cf. C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, 6 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1860), sermon 35.

[12] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 63 vols. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1855–1917), 36:315, 320.

[13] Ibid., 44:202.